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Art history benefits us all. Why won’t the government fight for it?

25 October 2016

The news that history of art A-level is to be scrapped in England after 2018 has been greeted with incredulity by artists, teachers and academics. ‘This is a terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible idea,’ the artist Yinka Shonibare told the Guardian. ‘We are becoming a nation of philistines.’

A spokeswoman from AQA, the sole exam board to offer the subject, said that small student numbers (839 students took the exam this summer) combined with ‘the complex and specialist nature of exams in this subject’, meant that it was no longer feasible for it to continue to administer the qualification. Any exam board which protests that exams may be ‘complex and specialist’ is surely an exam board that is not fit for purpose. It sounds like an organisation floundering to defend a cost-cutting decision at the expense of its official responsibilities.

Many critics have laid the blame at the door of former education secretary, Michael Gove, linking the decision to cut history of art to the curriculum reform instigated under his watch, when a cull of those subjects perceived to be ‘soft’ was initiated. For his part, Gove has denied ever classing history of art with the fluffy stuff, and has countered that more state schools ought to have offered the subject, and that more head teachers should have promoted it. Given that such a development was hardly ever likely to be organic, it is all the more disappointing that the decision should have been made at a time when the Association of Art Historians has recently devised and begun to put in place a strategy that might have seen that hope become a reality (it included the publication of the first A-level art-history textbook designed specifically for teachers and students).

It would be salutary to hear the latest incumbent at the Department for Education condemning the AQA decision, and to see her taking action to reinstate an A-level qualification in the subject. This government has not – yet – shown any sign of dropping the support for the creative industries that was a hallmark of both the coalition and David Cameron’s short-lived second ministry. But in allowing history of art to drop off the curriculum, there is no doubt that it risks chipping away at the future prosperity of the sector. At the time of writing, the current education secretary, Justine Greening, has not made any public comment on the issue. Did she catch the irony, I wonder, when on the day after the story broke she attended the unveiling of a restored Lynn Chadwick sculpture at Roehampton University?

At my secondary school in London, history of art wasn’t among the subjects offered at A-level. But I was lucky that one of the English teachers, whose classroom was plastered with posters of Italian altarpieces, ran a short course on Renaissance art to which pupils could voluntarily sign up (and I was lucky that it was that type of school). The course included jaunts to the National Gallery, where we stood and looked at Piero’s Baptism of Christ for a long time, and to the V&A, where he led us through what seemed like a labyrinth before anchoring us in front of a roundel by Donatello. Not only did these experiences open up a world of art to me; they suggested ways of looking and thinking that, with hindsight, were at least as important as any of the critical or analytical skills that I learnt as a 17-year-old in my official A-level classes.

This was an English teacher, and at a school that could indulge in the luxury of offering extra-curricular cultural education. But where art history is taught officially in schools, there will now be inspirational teachers facing up to the possibility that they may soon be surplus to requirements at a time when there ought to be a growing number of teachers opening the subject up to pupils from a far wider range of backgrounds. How will we ever defeat the notion that art – and the arts – remain the preserve of the privileged, if we allow the teaching of their history, and of the tools to analyse them, to drop out of circulation?

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2 comments

  1. An excellent summary of the case. The last line puts it so concisely. “How will we ever defeat the notion that art – and the arts – remain the preserve of the privileged, if we allow the teaching of their history, and of the tools to analyse them, to drop out of circulation?”
    Some one in the art press could sponsor a forum on how we should respond.

    • Justin Reay Nov 4 2016 at 9:19 pm

      It is not the case that the AQA History of Art A-level is the last A-level for the subject in the UK, still less that it is the last opportunity to study this subject for accreditation prior to Higher or Further Education. The Northern Ireland CEA board offers a rather more broadly-based, interesting A-level which was available for examination in mainland Britain until a few years ago, and may be again. There is also the excellent Cambridge Pre-U option, offering a more rigorous approach with higher than A or A* top grades, and including a ‘coursework’ research paper. And the USA-based Advanced Placement Program, very broad in date and culture if not so deeply analysed is accepted by UK universities as equivalent to the AQA A-level. Having taught to them all I am happy to advise my students to make the choice appropriate to their aptitudes and interests.
      What is of concern is the attitude that art history does not warrant the same level of support in schools – state or private – as, for example, History (which I also teach at this level). And that is based on the misapprehension that art history is a soft option for Higher Education, with a limited potential as a worthwhile career choice. The attitude that only the “hard” subjects are for bright people, summed up by (a later apologetic) President Obama as art history only being suitable for “girls with pearls” – an unfortunate statement in just about every respect.
      The history of art is a hard subject at any currently-available level of study. Taught with inspiration it is life-enhancing and mind-opening; learned with enthusiasm it gives transferable skills of economic value, and can open doors to a very wide range of careers, many offering strong earning potential for the practitioner and for the country which nurtures it.
      Britain is a world leader in many of the fields to which the study of art history at pre-university, undergraduate or post-graduate level is an effective foundation.
      The AQA A-level is dead. There is no point in wasting time wringing our hands about it. Other options – actually rather better than the new syllabus proposed by AQA for launching in 2017 – are available.
      Channel our energy, passion and influence to encourage more students, their parents and their schools to choose this wonderful, difficult, demanding, rewarding subject, which will open the world to their eyes and minds. Our country’s future as a world-class cultural force demands it.

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